In a world surging with anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the persecution of Christians, a Muslim is soon to portray Jesus in a film called Killing Jesus. Based on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s bestselling book of the same name, the film seeks to capture the human dynamics and political milieu around the controversial death of Jesus of Nazareth.
Haaz Sleiman, a Lebanese-born American Muslim, was chosen to play the lead as the Jesus character. His selection makes him virtually the first actor of Middle Eastern descent to ever play the role in any mainstream film.
While National Geographic’s attempt at authenticity should be celebrated, the casting of Sleiman has, instead, stirred quite the controversy.
Imagine — in a context where religious tribalism is growing fiercer, a Muslim is embodying the role of a Palestinian Jew and central figure to Christianity. Is this a heretical impossibility or is this a picture of something beautiful?
On Tuesday, I sat down with Haaz to explore the uniqueness of this moment in his career and how the experience of embodying the life and teachings of Jesus has left him forever changed.
What immediately stood out is the grace with which he is handling the criticism from Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Rather than worrying about the controversy, Sleiman feels lucky to have had the opportunity. For him, it was the “ultimate experience as an actor” as he had been “heavily shaped” by Jesus during his childhood. Growing up in a Muslim home, he was taught to revere Jesus as the prophet equal to Mohammed who had come to reveal the beauty and potential of humanity. To play this role gave him a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to “become the character that he truly believes in.”
Here is one of 2014’s most enduring tips for budding filmmakers: Do not make films that are going to make developing countries angry.
First, North Korea went ballistic over “The Interview,” which contained a farcical plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un. And then, Egypt, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates decided to ban the new Ridley Scott biblical epic, “Exodus: Gods And Kings.”
Why? Egypt, in particular, is angry at the film’s historical inaccuracies. “Exodus” shows the ancient Egyptians hanging recalcitrant Hebrew slaves; hanging was never used as a punishment in ancient Egypt. Moreover, the Egyptians are upset because the film depicts the ancient Hebrews laboring on the Great Sphinx and the pyramids. They also object to the depiction of an armed Hebrew insurrection, which does not appear in the ancient biblical text.
The official statement claimed the film includes “intentional gross historical fallacies that offend Egypt and its pharaonic ancient history in yet another attempt to Judaize Egyptian civilization, which confirms the international Zionist fingerprints all over the film.”
Guess what? The Egyptians are right.
It’s a little over 12 hours since I walked out of the movie theater, as the seemingly never-ending credits of Prometheus rolled behind me. It’s safe to say that I walked out of the theater in a very different mood than I had entered it. Three hours previously, I had butterflies in my stomach – the anticipation that I and my fellow late-night moviegoers exuded was palpable – we were all ready to witness something special. A master storyteller returning to, arguably his greatest work.
It is 33 years since Sir Ridley Scott scared the wits out of filmgoers with his horror/sci-fi classic Alien. In Prometheus, he returns to the universe he created all those years ago, to the mysterious workings of the Weyland Corporation, and to deep space where, as we all know, “no one can hear you scream.”
At 12:01 this morning, I was ready to see a film that has been a decade in development, an epic piece of cinema that would tantalize everyone who loves the Alien franchise, and that would introduce a younger generation to one of the most feared cinematic monsters in history. Sadly, the film I was ready to see was not the one I saw.